Connecting to your pain is the first and perhaps most important teaching of the historical Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. It’s the first truth of what are called the Four Noble Truths.

The first truth states the unavoidable, obvious facts of the world: Discomfort, sickness, old age and death visit every being, if we’re lucky. Time, change and impermanence are the only things that endure. Everything else ends. It was no news flash even then, but the Buddha’s first truth is that being human is truly a tough gig.

The next two truths are a little more unexpected. The second truth says that our discomfort or suffering isn’t caused by impermanence and emptiness or any situation in itself. Suffering arises from our attempts to avoid discomfort.

Then, the third noble truth says that only by owning, connecting with and transforming discomfort can we be free of it. Skillfully connecting with and navigating change, our pain and the causes of our pain is the source of our freedom, satisfaction and happiness.

Finally, the fourth noble truth describes the Buddha’s recommended path for doing this. These are practices for seeing all parts of our lives more clearly—our outlook, thinking, mindfulness, speech, action, livelihood, effort and meditation practice.

Thus, this book’s fourth practice, “Connect to your pain,” essentially incorporates the Buddha’s first three noble truths: Acknowledge and accept what hurts and use that as a guide to identify what’s most important and the best actions to take.

I think this is one of the things that made working in a Zen monastery kitchen so powerful and why I still draw lessons about leadership from that time. People who choose to practice Zen are generally not hiding the fact that there’s something missing, often something profoundly painful, in their lives.

As we worked together in the kitchen, I found this sense of pain was often palpable. And yet, acknowledging this pain, mostly through kindness and connection, right in the midst of the demands of kitchen tasks, was healing, and it led both to the development of character and to producing extraordinary results.

The benefit of pain: It alerts us to trouble

Sad-looking barbary ape - Meditate on your pain

This practice of acknowledging and connecting with your emotional discomfort may seem rather strange and counter-intuitive. Who wants to be uncomfortable? I don’t.

I’m not a big fan of physical or emotional pain. I faint easily, not only at the sight of blood, but at the thought of having blood taken. Several years ago I went to see a new doctor, and she asked me, as part of an intake questionnaire, how I respond to shots and needles. Before I could answer, I started to feel mildly lightheaded.

As descendants of the nervous apes, we can be easily overwhelmed by all the existential threats we face. Our feelings and emotional lives are fragile, constantly changing and outside of our control.

As descendants of the nervous apes, we can be easily overwhelmed by all the existential threats we face. Our feelings and emotional lives are fragile, constantly changing and outside of our control.

No matter how lucky and long our lives may be, the world still steadily chips away at us: family and friends pass, our eyesight deteriorates, our memories go, we can’t run like we used to, companies fold and we lose our jobs, others disappoint us, there are too many bills, things break and so on.

Who wants to face that? But it gets worse. We have inside an inner critic and a worrywart. We suffer when we don’t get what we desire, or when we instead get exactly what we don’t want. If we don’t reach our goals, we beat ourselves up inside; we experience depression, guilt, blame and other mental and emotional challenges. We experience stress from the constant drama of everyday life.

Our culture and society rarely help us. Much of our current entertainment industry and health care industry appears devoted to avoiding discomfort or immediately addressing the symptoms without fixing the cause. We distract ourselves and medicate ourselves at the first sign of emotional or physical discomfort. Some shut down all emotion to avoid feeling pain.

This is a mistake. Being numb and asleep is only the illusion of not feeling pain. We still feel it, and we need to feel it for a very good reason: Pain is helpful.

The truth is, pain serves a useful purpose. Rather than despair when pain inevitably arrives, we might explore welcoming it. Pain helps us identify problems; pain makes sure we don’t overlook what has harmed us. We intuitively understand this when it comes to physical pain, but not when it comes to emotional pain and existential crises.

Our bodies are amazingly fragile. We’re subject to disease and easily injured. A common cold, toothache or mild back spasm can make us feel miserable for days. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 30,000 diseases have been identified by modern medicine, and there are no known cures for three-quarters of them.

And yet, at the first sign of a cold, illness, or injury, we typically seek advice and treatment. If the pain is particularly bad or the symptoms undeniably serious—say, we trip and find our ankle no longer supports our weight—we stop everything.

Normal life can’t continue until we correctly identify the cause and treat it appropriately. If we don’t, if we let that pain go untreated for weeks or months or years, hobbling around and assuring everyone that we’re fine, really, no big deal—we know the problem will only get worse ’til it’s beyond healing; ’til, perhaps, we become crippled for life.

Why don’t we treat emotional suffering the same way?

Not turning away: Meditate on your pain

When the Buddha says that our freedom and happiness depend on embracing our discomfort, what does that mean?

In the West, this discovery was expressed by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who famously said, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it: and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

This sounds good, but how do we transform our discomfort? Not by avoiding it, but by becoming more and more familiar with it.

The most effective way to transform difficulty and pain is by shedding light on the feelings and associations of this pain, to shed light and increase understanding. The same can be said for most emotional and physical pain—greater understanding leads to more choice and more freedom.

I recently met with an executive in a large service company whom I’ve had a coaching relationship with for many years. He shared with me that his father had recently died. He told me that he was glad to be busy at work so that he didn’t have to feel the pain and the loss.

I suggested that he explore another strategy—to give himself time to feel his feelings, to process what he appreciated about and what he missed from his father. And to get whatever support he needed from family, friends or a therapist in order to grieve.

When it comes to emotional pain, the most effective and appropriate response is simply to welcome any pain with acceptance, while noticing any resistance to staying with what is uncomfortable.

Guided meditation: Observing pain

Young woman meditating on mat - Meditate on your pain

Here’s a short guided meditation on leaning into what is painful:

  • Start by finding a way to sit where you can be both relaxed and alert. Gently bring attention to your body, making conscious choices about how to sit. Place your feet flat on the floor. Decide how to place your hands, either palms down or palms up, on your thighs or in your lap. Sit up slightly straighter than normal, putting some energy in the back and spine, slightly arching your back. Relax your shoulders and your jaw. Notice any place where there is holding, and see if you can relax, with some energy.
  • Now, bring your attention to your breath. Just notice without trying to change anything. Notice each inhale and each exhale. Pay particular attention to each exhale.
  • Now, check in with your thinking mind. Just notice your thoughts, then see if you can bring your attention back to your body or breath.
  • Now, bring your attention to your feelings, whatever you might be feeling right now. Without forcing anything or trying to change anything, allow any feelings of sadness, or longing, or emptiness to arise. Where in your body do you feel emotional discomfort?
  • After a short time, bring your attention back to your breath and body. How does attention to discomfort influence your breathing? Then return your attention to whatever is next in your day and how you might integrate these practices with your relationships and your work.

Front cover of Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader - Meditate on your painMarc Lesser is a CEO, Zen teacher and author, and leads trainings and talks worldwide. He has led mindfulness and emotional intelligence programs at many of the world’s leading businesses and organizations including Google, SAP, Genentech and Kaiser. He’s currently CEO of ZBA Associates, a company providing mindfulness-based leadership training and creating community by supporting ongoing groups. Previously, he served as CEO and co-founder of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, whose core programs he helped develop within Google. Marc was a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years and is the former director of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He currently leads Mill Valley Zen, a weekly meditation group. Marc has an MBA degree from New York University and is the author of Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less and Know Yourself, Forget Yourself: Five Truths to Transform Your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life. More information at

Excerpted from the book Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. Copyright ©2019 by Marc Lesser. Printed with permission from New World Library —

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